Meet the Match
An Indian Fencer Fights for People with Disabilities
When Vibhas Sen was diagnosed with polio as a boy, his family never expected for him to later find his way into sports. With disability awareness lacking in Mumbai, India during his childhood, Vibhas usually stayed inside when his friends and classmates were outside playing. At the age of 12, he was denied the opportunity to swim at a local pool when coaches expressed concerns about being unable to teach a person with a disability.
With sports as an afterthought, Vibhas began a successful career in digital marketing after earning his B.S. in Information Technology from the University of Mumbai in 2008. But, by his mid-20s he was ready to pursue sport again and convinced a coach to teach him how to swim. After six months of training, Vibhas was invited to participate in a state competition, where he surprised himself and won a silver medal.
“Since that moment I have been rewriting the sports history of my family,” Vibhas says.
After three years of intense swim training, Vibhas transitioned to wheelchair fencing, where he convinced a non-disabled coach to train him.
“I told him to take a chance on me—we could work together, watch a lot of YouTube videos, and do whatever I needed to prove myself,” Vibhas recalls. “After training for one year, there was a state championship and we won gold. Then we won gold again at nationals a month later.”
At the start of 2017, Vibhas was ranked 35th internationally in men’s sabre. He competes regularly at the international level with the aim of reaching the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. In addition to training, he works as the senior manager of digital marketing for PNB MetLife Insurance India and serves on the committees for the Maharashtra Paralympic Swimming Association, Mumbai Fencing Association, and Wheelchair Fencing Federation of India.
Vibhas always seeks ways to connect his marketing career with sports. Senior leadership at PNB MetLife was so impressed with his work, and his representation of the disability community, that he was recently asked to take the lead on its badminton project. Taking full advantage of this opportunity, he began lobbying for PNB MetLife to promote its Badminton Championship to include para athletes.
Throughout India, disability awareness and accessibility challenges present challenges preventing many of the country’s approximately 27 people with disabilities from accessing sports. Driven by this reality, Vibhas is active as a coach and speaker, visiting rehabilitation centers to speak with families and individuals who recently acquired disabilities.
“Before sports, people just knew me as the disabled guy in advertising—that was my standard bio” Vibhas says. “Now their entire perspective has taken a 180 degree turn. When I was young, I was blocked because of a lack of awareness and support. Now, I want to make sure no other para athlete goes through the hardships I went through.”
Vibhas has approached several organizations about partnering to recruit and create development programs for employees with disabilities. Through his relationships with sporting associations, he is also passionate about developing and expanding adaptive sports across India.
“In 2016, India won more Paralympic medals than Olympic levels, even though we had 100 less athletes,” Vibhas says. “If we work hard to develop more people like me we can make a great impact everywhere in the country. There is talent and there is interest, we just need to be better at finding people.”
For his mentorship experience, Vibhas traveled to one of the foremost rehabilitation facilities in the United States. At Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, he was mentored by two leaders in the area of adaptive sports advocacy, research, and programs: Mary Patstone, director of adaptive sports and recreation, and Dr. Cheri Blauwet, attending physician at Spaulding, chairperson of the IPC Medical Committee, and seven-time Paralympic medalist in wheelchair racing. For years, Mary served as the director of development for a hospital in Cape Cod that later became a part of Spaulding, as well as in chief roles with the regional branch of the American Red Cross. She is very familiar with grassroots development and the important role played by partnerships in making adaptive sports sustainable. Similarly, Dr. Cheri is closely affiliated with the Paralympic movement and exposed Vibhas to key networks and relationships. These established leaders helped provide Vibhas with the tools he needs for achieving his dream of a nationwide movement of adaptive sports in India.